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Script Writing Courses:
Are They Worth It?

The Pros & Cons Of Gaining An MFA Screenwriting Degree

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July 2, 2018 2 comments
script writing courses

Script Writing Courses: Are They Worth It?

Many of today’s professional screenwriters are graduates of script writing courses—particularly MFAs—and gaining a screenwriting degree has become a common entry route into the film industry. (Check out our choice of the best screenwriting courses.)

However, it can also be a very expensive route and doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a career upon graduation. Far from it.

Many other writers find their way in by going it alone: writing constantly, networking and submitting their scripts until they get somewhere.

Both routes have their advantages and disadvantages and it all depends on the individual, but for a more in-depth look at the pros and cons of script writing courses, keep reading.

Script Writing Courses: The Pros

script writing courses
World class tutelage

Rather than trying to learn the craft of screenwriting on your own, on a top MFA screenwriting degree you’ll be learning day in and day out from some of the world’s best screenwriters, filmmakers and tutors.

Receiving feedback on your script from, say, Richard Walter, will be highly more constructive than just reading his book, Essentials of Screenwriting. Actually being at UCLA and having Alexander Payne pop in to deliver a guest lecture will be far more inspiring than watching a YouTube video of him speaking at UCLA.

Even if the script writing courses you’re looking at don’t have access to people of this calibre, you’ll still benefit from being taught by professionals. Which brings us to…

Mentors

Many script writing courses pair students up with an experienced, professional writer to act as a mentor, which can be an invaluable experience.

There are countless examples of professional writers and filmmakers who may not have broken into the business without the help of a mentor, such as Steven Spielberg who was mentored by George Lucas.

If you’re lucky, enrolling on an MFA screenwriting might just pair you up with that gem of a mentor who inspires you in ways you’d never have thought possible.

Unique opportunities

On a screenwriting degree you’ll have the opportunity to experience things and take advantage of opportunities and resources which may remain inaccessible if you try to go it alone.

For example, most top script writing courses give students the opportunity to have their scripts workshopped, read by actors at table reads and made into a film.

Many script writing course also make their students take acting classes, pitch to industry professionals and get familiar with being on set and comfortable handling sound, lights and editing.

Not that these things can’t be replicated in the “real world,” but being on an MFA screenwriting will force you to get involved with them rather than put them off. Which brings us to…

Structure, focus and motivation

Studying a screenwriting degree means you’ll be immersed in an intense writing environment 24/7 based around a strict work schedule—writing every day and to strict deadlines.

Hearing “Your screenplay is due next week” will force you get used to writing on demand, just like a professional screenwriter. All of which will stand you in good stead in the outside world.

Sure, you don’t have to take an MFA screenwriting in order to set your own writing and studying routine. But you won’t have anyone to motivate and push you to produce the goods on time. You’ll be relying solely on your own willpower and dedication which can be tough and also a little lonely.

Community

Following on from this, a screenplay writing course will provide you with a ready-made community of writers in exactly the same position as yourself. Simply being around like-minded peers, all of whom share the same passion for writing, and want to become professional screenwriters just like you, can be incredibly inspiring.

Yes you could join a writing group or take some part time screenwriting classes, but the longer, more intensive experience provided by script writing courses is hard to beat.

Connections

Even if you don’t immediately “make it” after graduating from an MFA screenwriting, your classmates just might. And who are they going to call when that next writing gig comes up?

The truth is, the best script writing courses are huge networking arenas for writers, directors, actors, etc. and you’ll be right in the middle of it.

This is an ideal position to make connections that could last way beyond the two years spent studying together. Most good script writing courses also have valid connections with the film industry that they hook their students up with after graduating.

Script Writing Courses: The Cons

script writing courses
Cost

Unless you’re independently wealthy, script writing courses are extremely expensive. Mostly you’ll be spending somewhere in the region of $40,000 per year. And that’s not including all the additional costs of room and board, transportation, food, books, supplies and other random living expenses.

Some of these added expenses you’ll have to pay for anyway but even the most frugal of students usually end up spending more than they expected on an MFA screenwriting.

Many script writing courses offer scholarships which you should definitely check out if you’re eligible, but competition for these is fierce and many students end up taking out a loan landing you in thousands of dollars worth of debt by the time you graduate.

The industry doesn’t care 

Owning a piece of paper with “MFA screenwriting” on the top holds little sway when it comes to actually trying to get hired as a writer or taken on by a manager or agent.

Imagine a development exec meets two writers. The first says they’re currently enrolled on an MFA screenwriting and in the process of writing essays on film theory, a feature script and making a student film.

The second tells the exec they’re working as an assistant at CAA and have three feature specs ready to go—all written on evenings and weekends.

It’s likely the exec will view the second writer as being more industry savvy and dedicated. But even if this weren’t the case, all that really matters is the quality of your writing.

Upon graduating people won’t really be interested in hearing about film school. They’ll be interested in what you’ve written, what else you have in the pipeline and you as a person.

No one’s going to say, “This is a great script but I see you don’t have an MFA so I’m afraid we can’t hire you.”

The DIY factor

While many professional screenwriters got their big break after taking a screenwriting degree, many did not.

Rather than get yourself into debt, you can write everyday, move to LA, get a job in the industry, network, read screenwriting books and professional screenplays, get script coverage in order to improve and a mentor, etc.

One way you could learn a ton of what’s being taught on a screenwriting course, for example, is to simply volunteer to help out on it.

If you were to get a resume together and contact, say, USC, putting yourself forward as a PA, there’s a strong chance you’d get hired to take care of administrative tasks, loading film crew equipment, be a stand-in, etc.

Do these simple tasks quickly and efficiently and without complaint and you could then find yourself being bumped up to jobs with more responsibility. All the while, being on set and making friends with people on an MFA screenwriting will give you the opportunity to learn a lot without paying a dime.

While the structure, focus and motivation outlined in the previous section may be difficult to replicate, there’s nothing to stop you simply getting out there and working in the business, shooting your own short movie scripts, writing in every spare moment and making it happen.

No guarantees

Once you walk out the doors for the last time it’s highly unlikely you’re going to be ushered straight into a limo and whisked off to Universal Studios to sign a writing contract.

You’re going to have to keep writing, improve your craft, network and try and get your foot in the door just as you would if you’d never gone to grad school.

There are absolutely no guarantees in this business. Especially as studios seems to be continually cutting the amount of money they spend each year on spec scripts and junior staff positions.

And yet as the amount of opportunities in the film industry goes down, every year the amount of writers applying to script writing courses goes up.

New screenwriting programs are sprouting up all the time, but this brings with it another set of problems…

Variable quality

While reading online about various script writing degrees, it’s easy to get carried away hearing about all the amazing career opportunities they offer their graduates. Many give the impression they’re pumping out writers every year straight into lucrative careers like some kind of factory.

However, not all script writing courses are created equally. While there are some very high quality screenwriting degrees out there that may absolutely improved your chances of getting hired, there are many more of a lesser quality that are probably best avoided.

Spending thousands of dollars to sit in a screenwriting class without any real structure or insight while listening to a Mr Nobody instructor, is obviously not what you want to happen.

And so you need to be very careful when applying to script writing courses that you’ve researched them thoroughly and narrowed it down to only the academic institutions that will deliver the goods.

Variable focus

Not all script writing courses focus solely on screenwriting. Depending on where you get in, you may have to spend a large proportion of your time writing things you have no particular desire to write.

Let’s say you want to be a feature writer. If you enroll on the screenwriting program at NYU, though, you’ll also have to write TV scripts and stage plays.

Having a varied portfolio is probably a good idea, but some writers get unstuck being forced to write in mediums they don’t like and sometimes end up getting thrown off the course.

Are Script Writing Courses Worth It? 

script writing courses

Some professional writers think obtaining an MFA screenwriting was best decision they ever made due to the contacts made, level of instruction, opportunities, etc.

Others are glad they saved on the huge enrollment costs, stayed debt free and went it alone: writing a ton of scripts, shooting movies, networking, etc.

It’s now up to you to decide which route you think best suits you and your personal circumstances. We hope this look at the pros and cons of script writing courses has helped.

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If you’re thinking about applying for an MFA in screenwriting, how’s it going? Which grad school do you want to get into? Or have you already obtained a screenwriting degree? How did it work out? Would you recommend our readers check out script writing courses as a way of advancing their career or not?

Let us know in the comments section below.

script writing courses

2 Comments
  1. pat caleb says:

    I am attending a free college class, screenwriting 101, offered by my local library

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good luck, Pat. We’ll be posting another blog post soon about screenwriting classes.

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